Workplace conflict is inevitable, but it’s not always bad. In this way, it’s much like a marriage. As legendary British anthropologist Gregory Bateson put it: “Too little conflict, and the marriage is dull. Too much, and it’s toxic.” That same notion can be applied to workplace relationships.
An office without debates or conflict is a place where no one is pushing forward new ideas. But, if everyone is cutthroat, and people are taking their laptops into the bathroom stall so they don’t fall behind on their work, you’ll have problems.
I recently came across a research paper on workplace conflict out of the University of Virginia. The author sat down with esteemed conflict researcher and University of Virginia business professor Kristin Behfar to try to figure out why work fights occur and what we can do to prevent them. After a detailed analysis of the various reasons that cause coworkers to battle, they came up with six key ways that workplace conflicts can be mitigated.
Appropriately, my go-to strategy of changing the subject to sports every time I sense tension was left off the list. (I guess there are people out there who don’t know or care who LeBron James is, which is a shame.)
I recently had a workplace relationship go south, so this article was of particular interest to me. My team brought on a new person, and it didn’t work out. I’ve been trying to analyze why – and I now see that things could have worked out much differently had I heeded the advice of those who study conflict for a living.
Here’s how the experts say to deal with conflict, along with all the ways I failed to do so:
Recognize Representation Gaps
A representation gap refers to the idea that conflict can arise when people have competing interests despite the fact that they’re both aiming for the same goal.
For instance, people in sales might butt heads with those in marketing because they have different ideas about how to best approach new clients. Companies that have a clear definition of success and communicate it to all employees are the best at mitigating these conflicts.
How I failed: My company has clearly defined goals. It was partly my job to make these objectives clear to our new employee, who we’ll call Mark (not his real name). As you probably guessed, I didn’t do a good enough job.
Looking back, there was a clear representation gap. Mark was working on a creative project, and in my mind he was taking too long to complete small tasks which I thought were of little importance. I needed him to complete his work quickly so I could do my job. Of course, in Mark’s mind, he was simply being detail-oriented.
As the researcher points out, we were “defining success differently.” I wanted things done quick and dirty, he wanted slow and perfect.
If we could have communicated better about this, a happy medium could have been achieved. Unfortunately, I let this issue fester, which leads us to the next tactic for avoiding conflict…
Recognize and Manage Passive Aggression
I find it very uncomfortable to have direct, face-to-face interactions about job performance. Many others agree, as the research shows that “passive aggressive behaviors — vagueness, avoidance, teasing or exclusion — are much more common” than direct conflicts where people actually say what they mean.
The key is to “tactfully refocus on shared team goals.” Basically, you have to have a real conversation. This doesn’t imply that you’ll get results from casting blame. Similar to how the representation gap issue gets solved, you will have a better chance at finding a resolution if you can get together with the person you’re having a disagreement with and speak frankly without being rude. If no one knows what’s wrong, nothing can get solved.
How I failed: I was passive aggressive and internalized my feelings. I never teased, as that’s not my style. I am more the type to keep my head down and hope that someone more senior will solve my problem. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get help from someone higher up the chain when they don’t have a clue about what’s going on.
I acted like a person who gets served the wrong meal at a restaurant but chooses to complain about it because he doesn’t want to upset the chef by sending it back. This creates a cycle of anger and resentment that will eventually boil over — as it did, of course.
Create Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. It refers to the idea that people should be free to express risky ideas, make mistakes, and speak freely without the fear that they will be criticized. Teams that encourage openness and honesty in this way tend to be higher performing than groups that are afraid to say what they really think.
How I failed: As I mentioned before, Mark was working on a project that required creativity. Having worked with Hollywood TV writers, I understand that the way feedback is delivered can have a dramatic effect on how a person feels. I’ve seen accomplished, confident, writers end up looking like children who saw Bambi’s mom get shot after receiving harsh criticism of their work.
And yet, when Mark would come to me to discuss his progress, I was often quick to point out flaws or areas for improvement. I was never judgmental or rude, but I definitely did not take the time to stroke his ego. I was looking to get results fast, and didn’t feel like I had time to consider the impact of every word I was using. I noticed after a while that Mark became more tentative, and as a result his work suffered.
In a complex, fast-paced environment, it’s often hard to slow down and think about how your actions are affecting other people. In being blunt with Mark, I was probably hurting his confidence. In treating him this way, I was weakening our relationship and subtly hurting the overall performance of the company.
Match the Work With the Quirk
It sounds obvious, but it’s worth stating: People perform better when their skills and personality are aligned with the work they’re doing. Behfar points out that not every personality is suited for every kind of role. The key is “identifying a person’s strengths and how they can help the team.”
How I failed: To be fair, Mark was mostly working on projects that matched his strengths. Where I, and my company as a whole, stumbled a bit was in also requiring that he help out in ways that were not putting him in a position to succeed.
It’s the nature of a smaller company to have an all-hands-on-deck approach. But that doesn’t mean all thought of “matching work with quirk” should be thrown out the window. Mark, a natural introvert, should not have been put in situations that required him to interact for long periods of time with needy clients. It clearly did not suit him well. With a little more planning and foresight, the conflicts that arose from that mismatch could have been averted.
Find the Perfect Size
Most teams are too big, plain and simple. Behar points to the research of Marvin Shaw, who found that “once teams exceed eight people, three people do 77% of the talking.”
Anyone who’s sat around a large conference table at a meeting, waiting anxiously to get a word in, knows how true that is. The key is to have small, nimble teams where everyone can have a say and each person knows their role.
How I failed: For once, this is an area where I didn’t do half bad! Of course, this was a function of being at a smaller company. But the teams Mark worked on were small and manageable.
However, one aspect that Behfar mentions is that no matter the size of the team, it’s important for managers to “clearly define how each person is adding value.”
In that regard, I had much room for improvement. Mark’s work was certainly valued, but, looking back, I can’t pinpoint a time where the exact reasons he was doing what he was doing were clearly articulated. In my mind, this was unnecessary. But, looking back, I can see how that sort of vagueness can lead people to think they’re being underappreciated.
Use After Action Reviews
Whether things turn out good or bad, it’s beneficial to spend some time figuring out why you ended up with a certain outcome. A thorough review is a good way to accomplish this. It allows companies to pick out successful strategies. Plus, if you got a result out of something that was lucky or random, you’ll only be able to replicate that result if you identify what made it happen in the first place.
A critical part of a good review, according to Behar, is “to make sure you give credit where credit is due.” Often, the reason people leave good companies is because they feel their contributions were looked over.
How I failed: I never conducted a single review. This is ironic, as I am very used to this process from my years as a professional basketball player. In that world, everything is filmed, reviewed, and analyzed almost immediately after it occurs. When you make a mistake, you know it instantly and can correct it the next time around.
Mark was left in limbo, as neither his good deeds nor his missteps were reviewed. It’s hard to know which way is up in a situation like that, and I feel bad for letting it happen. Furthermore, whenever Mark would ask for a performance review, he was either brushed off or made to think everything was okay.
As discussed earlier, avoidance is a part of passive aggressive behavior. Couple that with the breakdown of all the other action items on this list, and it’s no wonder that things didn’t work out.
Work, for many of us, involves hour after hour of collaborating with a person or a group of people in order to solve a problem. As with any relationship, it’s not always going to be rainbows and sunshine. Tensions will come to the surface. It’s how you deal with the conflict that determines your interpersonal success and the success of your business as a whole.
I learned a lot by getting my first real taste of workplace conflict. After living through it and diving into the research, I feel better prepared to face thorny issues going forward.
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